The trio of horses wound its way through the cold, wet night. First came Nark, then Bolan, then the pack-horse. They moved slowly; rain had turned the trail slippery.
Bolan hissed for Nark to stop.
Nark reined his horse as Bolan drew alongside.
“I think we’re being followed,” Bolan whispered. “I’m sure I heard hoofbeats.”
They sat motionless, listening. The still jungle dripped with water. Far away a barking deer called.
“You’re imagining things,” scoffed Nark.
“And was I imagining things when I parachuted into the DZ?” said Bolan. He twisted in his saddle and cocked an ear.
The horses tugged at the reins, trying to nibble the ferns bordering the trail. “We’ll miss the cast,” said Nark.
A gust of wind swayed the treetops, showering them with water. “Okay, let’s go,” said Bolan, and they resumed their journey.
A little later the trees thinned out, and they came to shacks and wheelbarrows. They dismounted and tied the horses to a wheelbarrow.
“I’ll get the keys from the watchman,” said Nark.
“What is this place?” asked Bolan.
“A tin mine that went bust,” said Nark. “The owners are in Bangkok looking for a buyer.” He went off, swallowed by the night.
Bolan waited, rubbing his arms for warmth. This detour would cost them a good hour, but it could not be helped. They needed shelter to transmit. It was too wet to send in the open air.
An electric generator broke the night’s stillness, and lights came on everywhere. Now Bolan could see an entrance to a tunnel and a water tower.
Nark appeared, key ring in hand. “Won’t need to pedal the ge-gene tonight,” he said with a gesture at the lights.
They opened the mine office and carried in their gear. They lit a stove, cleared a table and started setting up the radio.
The radio was a Shashkov Mark II, a 1953 model, ancient, but the only Russian radio Stony Man Farm could lay its hands on. As with most old sets, it required a very long antenna.
They strung one hundred feet of wire between trees, attached it to the set and grounded it. They connected the Morse key and the earphones. Nark plugged the power lead into an overhead lamp socket, and Bolan switched on the set. The needle rose. Bolan took an earphone and tapped the key.
“Works? “asked Nark.
“Works,” said Bolan.
“Toss you for who sends,” said Nark, bringing out a fifty-satang coin.
“You send it,” Bolan told him. “I’m not as good as the CIA with bugs.”
The key was a semiautomatic transversal that was operated by moving it from side to side. A much faster key than the up-and-down one, it required considerable experience.
They pulled up chairs and sat down. Bolan began writing on a message pad. He wrote a sentence per page, handing the page to Nark for encoding. In the message, Bolan gave Stony Man Farm a sit-rep, requested the air drop and gave the coordinates for the drop zone.
As he was encoding the last page Nark said, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to ask for a team of Green Berets? They could help us lead the Meo. That Tiger hardsite won’t be a walkover, and you know the Meo — they don’t have much taste for protracted warfare. If the first assault fails, they’re quite capable of packing up and going home. You and I can’t be everywhere.”
“There won’t be any protracted warfare,” Bolan replied. “Washington would never agree to troops. Troops leave bodies, and one of the stipulations on this mission is no sign of U.S. involvement. Why do you think we’re playing at being Russians? If the Thais ever found out we staged a covert mission on their territory they’d pull out of SEATO. We can’t afford that. You’re acting typically CIA. I’m more modest, like the Meo. By the way, how many people know who we really are?”
“Only Vang Ky,” said Nark. “All the other headmen have been told it’s a Russian job, not that they care who’s behind it as long as it gives them a chance to settle a score with the Chinese. They really hate the Chinese.”
“Well, they’ve been fighting them for close to four thousand years,” said Bolan.
“Mind you, we’re not all that popular either,” said Nark. “Some of the things I’ve heard the Meo say about us made me glad I was a KGB and not a CIA agent.”
“That’s not surprising either,” said Bolan. “Not after Nam. If I were a Meo, I’d be a rabid anti-Yankee. We used them, then dumped them. It was criminal.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Nark pensively. “I don’t think we used them any more than they used us. They weren’t in that war exactly for altruistic reasons. You know what Vang Jay told me once? Thanks to the Americans, the Meo now have a big enough army to drive the Lao into the Mekong. That was Vang Jay’s plan for the postwar period — turn Laos into a Meo kingdom. I think you…”
The horses’ neighing sent Bolan crashing through the door. As he came out, a man in a black Montagnard suit detached himself from under the window and fled down the slope. Bolan took off after him, pursuing him into the trees.
The Montagnard swerved like a rabbit, running this way and that, then he streaked for something white. A horse.
Bolan run full tilt, catching up as the Montagnard was about to mount the horse. He grabbed him by the shoulders, and they crashed to the ground. The horse took off, and Bolan and the Montagnard rolled, thrashing in the undergrowth.
A knife appeared in the Montagnard’s hand. Bolan grabbed the man’s wrist, his other hand going for the man’s throat. The Montagnard twisted and turned, his free hand clawing at Bolan’s face. But Bolan held on, and the man’s movements weakened. Then he began kicking the way men do when they’re being strangled.
“Surrender!” Bolan hissed in Meo.
“I surrender,” the man wheezed.
Bolan released his hold on the man’s throat. In return he got a punch in the head from the guy’s hand, which held a rock. He fell to the ground, blood flowing from his head, but he retained his grip on the man’s wrist. A moment later he was back on top again, and this time he did not release the pressure on the man’s throat.
The knife fell; the Montagnard was dead.
Bolan found his head scarf, which had come off during the fight, shouldered the corpse, and walked back. So he had been right after all, he reflected. There had been someone following them. Once again his senses had proved right, though this time it was more obvious; he had heard hoofbeats. Bolan still could not explain where his sense of danger on the DZ had come from. Perhaps he never would know, he told himself. Sometimes you just had to trust those age-old survival instincts and not think too much about them.
In the shack the dry, staccato sound of a Morse key filled the room. Nark was transmitting, earphones on his head, eyes concentrating on the columns of figures before him.
Bolan sat down to watch. The way Nark “wiggled the bug,” as transmitting on a transversal was called, impressed him. Nark was so relaxed, yet at times the key blurred he moved it so fast.
There was a final, long
Bolan guessed there must be a lot of static. He watched Nark write down a message. Bangkok told them to stand by for a reply in ten minutes.
On this mission all messages to Stony Man Farm were being routed via the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. The Shashkov was too weak a radio to transmit beyond Thailand.
Nark peeled off his earphones. “What happened?”
They went out. “The shaman’s son,” Nark announced. “The man who gave me away.”
“Did he speak English?”
“Fluently. Good job you got him. He would have told Tiger our entire plan.” Nark looked at Bolan’s head. “We’d better do something about that.”
They found an outside tap, and Bolan washed the gash. Then they returned to the shack and Nark dressed the wound with a bandage from the first-aid kit Bolan carried in his haversack.
“We’re getting to be quite a team,” said Nark. “You pick locks to free me, I treat your wounds.” He nodded at the first-aid kit. “You do come prepared, don’t you?”
“When you’ve done as many missions as I have,” said Bolan, “you don’t forget to bring the essentials.”
“The odds are that blood will flow, right?”
“Pretty much,” said Bolan. Nark looked at his watch. “Transmission time.”
They went to the set and each took an earphone. From across fifteen thousand miles of ether crackling with static, there rose and fell a pattern of
April, thought Bolan. He could tell by the touch. An operator’s mode of sending was as individual as a person’s handwriting. Bolan tried to imagine her sitting by the transmitter in the radio room, a caring, vastly understanding woman who gave of her very best to Stony Men who were forever meeting other women in their wars.
The call signal ended and the message began. Bolan and Nark both wrote it down. That way if one missed, the other could fill in. With all the static it was easy to miss letters.
The message ended, and Nark sent a signal confirming receipt. Bangkok relayed it to Stony Man Farm, and a few minutes later April sent her love and Stony Man Farm went off the air.
Nark and Bolan decoded. The message informed them there would be an air drop in two nights’ time and gave the air recognition signal. Tagged on to the message was a bit of news from Hal Brognola.
Bolan stared at the message, a brooding look in his eyes. “A country’s youth condemned to slavery,” he said quietly.
* * *
The tiger gunship hovered like a bird of prey. In front of it was a forest, then a sea of high grass, then more woods. The crew was observing a trio of horses move through the grass in the distance. There were two riders and a packhorse. The riders were not aware of the helicopter. It was behind them, and the distance was too great to hear it.
In the front of the helicopter, the gunner was observing the riders through binoculars. “They are long noses, sir,” he reported to the pilot behind him.
“That’s them. Prepare to attack.”
“Chain gun, sir?”
“No, rockets. I want to test the system. Nap-of-the-earth attack.”
The helicopter shuddered as the gunner fired. The rocket streaked for the horses. Wisps of vapor trailed it. It flew over the heads of the riders and exploded in a cloud of white. The horses reared in fright.
“The trees!” shouted Bolan. He dug his heels into the horse’s flanks, and they galloped for the nearest cover.
Once inside the woods they turned to look for their attacker. The rocket had come from the direction of a forest behind them, but there was nothing there.
“Could be someone in those trees,” suggested Nark.
“No, it was an air attack,” said Bolan. He could tell by the angle of elevation. “Hold my horse.”
Bolan jumped to the ground and ran to the edge of a clearing. He brought out his field glasses and scanned the sky. It was empty. Nor was there any sound of aircraft.
“There! “Nark shouted.
Bolan zeroed in on a camouflage-painted helicopter rising from behind a stand of trees. A Hughes Apache. It was America’s latest attack helicopter, except this one was not American or even Thai. On its tail was painted the sun of Nationalist China.
“Tiger!” Bolan shouted over his shoulder. He inspected the helicopter’s armament: a chain gun and four rocket pods, but no missiles. The last was a blessing. With missiles — the Apache was normally armed with Hellfire missiles — they would not have stood a chance.
Nark ran to his side, and Bolan passed him the glasses. “An AH-64,” said Bolan. “New kind of gun-ship. Flies between hills and trees, darts out to fire, then disappears.”
They watched the helicopter turn to face them, the crew able to tell where Bolan and Nark were because the horses had left a swath in the grass. It hovered suspended at treetop level, silent, menacing.
Suddenly the helicopter shot sideways. The speed was amazing, a good fifty miles per hour. It flew in an arch from right to left and came to a stop above another group of trees. It hovered for a while, then dropped out of sight.
“Something tells me we’re going to serve as target practice,” said Bolan. “Let’s tie up the horses.”
“We’re going to stay here?” asked Nark.
“It’s our only chance,” Bolan told him. “He’d get us long before we ever reached those hills. This way he won’t know if we’re dead or alive, and he’ll come to investigate.”
Just then the helicopter popped up. It fired a rocket, then dropped out of sight. Bolan and Nark hit the ground as the rocket swished through the treetops. They nearly lost their horses, which were sent rearing by the explosion. They managed to fight them down and get them tied to trees, spaced apart so one unlucky shot would not kill them all.
From his saddle Bolan took the RAW. “Lend me your rifle,” he said to Nark.
“What are you going to do?”
“Not quite sure yet,” grunted Bolan. “But as they say in the Boy Scouts, ‘Be prepared.'”
They swapped guns, and Bolan attached the launcher with the rocket to the underside of the M-16.
“If I get hit before I can fire this,” he said to Nark, “simply pull the safety pin from the launcher and fire a normal round. The gases from the round will activate the launch.”
They went to the edge of the woods again, and Bolan knelt in the grass, awaiting the gunship with his puny rocket like David with his sling awaiting Goliath. He was sure the gunship would cease firing rockets and come looking for them. Not that it was short of rockets — in its four dispensers, Bolan knew, were seventy-six of those 2.75-inch folding fin toys — but Bolan also knew that a soldier had to account to a quartermaster. There was a limit to how many rockets the helicopter’s crew could expend simply to flush out two men.
And Bolan guessed right. Two rockets later the Apache flew toward them. It came in low and slow, obviously figuring it had nothing to fear from the men below. After all, they were only armed with rifles, and an Apache was built to withstand even a .50-caliber machine gun.
The sky filled with the
As the gunship approached, the long barrel of the 30mm chain gun protruding from its belly moved, the gunner trying out the controls. Then the muzzle began winking and the sky growled.
Bolan and Nark threw themselves to the ground as a small storm swept the woods. High explosive rounds. Behind them they could hear the horses neighing in fear.
“You’d better go and keep an eye on the horses,” Bolan said to Nark.
The other ran back while Bolan crouched behind a yang tree. As the helicopter drew nearer, it changed course slightly. Bolan rose and moved through the trees, adjusting his position to the new trajectory.
A hundred yards from the woods the gunship paused, its gun moving from side to side. The muzzle winked as the gunner sprayed the trees with a long lateral burst. The trees around Bolan thudded from the impact of the exploding rounds. A second burst followed.
The gunship flew nearer. But when it reached the edge of the forest it stopped again as if afraid to proceed, as if some instinct of self-preservation told the pilot a hunter was waiting below. Orders are orders, however, and the helicopter moved over the trees, the wash from its blades flattening the canopy.
Bolan watched from behind a tree as the Apache inched its way overhead, visible through the leaves, the chain gun winking, hosing the woods with its hail of death. The noise was tremendous: the whining engines, the chopping blades, the growling gun, the exploding rounds.
As the machine passed, Bolan ran to place himself under its tail. He cocked the rifle and withdrew the safety pin on the launcher. Eyes tearing from the dust and bits of wood stirred up by the churning air, ears deafened by the constant din, Bolan followed his prey, waiting for an opening.
It came an instant later when the helicopter began turning. Perhaps the gunner had seen something and wanted a better angle of fire. The rotorwash blew some of the treetops apart to create a hole in the canopy. Bolan raised his rifle and fired.
The metal sphere hanging under the M-16’s muzzle spun and flew to meet the green gray shape above. It punched a hole in the belly, there was a flash, and a ball of fire enveloped the helicopter. It fell through the treetops amid the sound of breaking tree limbs and shearing metal.
A blast of hot air knocked Bolan off his feet as the helicopter blew up. More explosions followed as the rockets and ammunition went. Bolan lay with his arms over his head while the earth heaved, metal and wood rained down.
Finally there was silence, broken only by the crackle of flames. Around him things were burning — wreckage, trees, leaves, bark, even himself. He jumped to his feet and beat out his smoking clothes.
Bolan heard the sound of running feet. “Are you all right?” shouted Nark.
“So far,” said Bolan. He picked up his weapon and stared pensively at the destruction around him. A minute ago the forest was filled with the noise of a sleek killer machine at whose command sat two men. Now that was history, the men vaporized, the machine so much junk.
“We’ve lost the packhorse and the radio,” said Nark. “The other horses are okay.”
On the way back to the horses Bolan said, “Tiger must be rich to afford helicopters like that. They come fifteen million dollars apiece.”
“There’s no shortage of money in that business,” Nark replied. “In the States alone, illicit drugs is a ninety-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Ninety
“Yeah, well,” said Bolan, coming to his horse, “let’s see what we can do to change that.”